Forget the medium. First, master the art of engagement, says celebrated shooter Donald Weber.
From 'Into the Underworld,' Canadian photographer Donald Weber's collection exploring Russia's criminal underground. The tattoos of the 'Zeks', or Russian convicts, denote their rank and/or crimes.
Donald Weber's quest for a compelling story has taken him across the planet, through Africa, eastern Europe, Russia and South America. The Toronto-born shooter has won two World Press Photo Awards, the Lange-Taylor Documentary Prize, completed the Guggenheim and Canada Council fellowships and is a member of the acclaimed VII Photo Agency. After years abroad, the Canadian photojournalist is back living in North America and wrapping up a new project, War Sand. He recently took time from his busy schedule to talk about the project, how he does what he does, and why working at a newspaper is still an awesome job.
Where are you based now and why?
"Los Angeles. I lived in Kiev and Moscow for a long time and then I lived in Rome. I was looking to come back to North America. I've got half my family over here. I love to be an outsider and not from the place where I'm living. I love the feeling that I get from never quite understanding where it is that I live. But it can be difficult. I wanted to come where I could speak English and be normal and understand the people around me and not have to shake my head in dismay and wonder all the time. And the sun is really nice, I have to say."
Your work is very up close and personal yet unobtrusive. Can you describe your approach?
"I really hate street photography, and I hate it not because I don't like to do it but because I'm really uncomfortable with it. As a photographer, I've got to take pictures of people, so I needed to do something about that. So the strategy -- and I didn't sit down and think about it; it kind of just came organically -- was I would try to make a connection. You just start a conversation. I found that people are genuinely interested in you if you're genuinely interested in them. There's a trust formed. It's a thin layer of trust, but there is some kind of bond that is made. And from there I usually can get invited back to somebody's home and from there it's even more intimate sharing. I think that is how my photography -- the look, the feel and the aesthetic -- was formed. It's not about the mastery of photography. It's about the mastery of engaging with a subject."
You run a lot of workshops. Is that [the people skills] something that can be taught?
"I never really thought it could be, but I was teaching a workshop in New York this summer and there was a Turkish photographer. He basically said, 'Oh no, I can't do that. Every time I ask somebody to take their picture, they tell me to go away or screw off.' I said, 'Show me your approach. What are you doing?' It's not really that hard to walk up to somebody and say, 'I'd like to take your picture.' It's all in the way that you compose yourself and comport your attitude and such. So I had him pretend that I'm his subject and the way he kind of came, lunging at me, was actually quite terrifying. So we did a role play and I tried to be a subject and give him a hard time but also gave him some guidance. The next day he came back with 10 portraits. I said, 'What was the difference there?' He said he complimented everybody that he saw. What I was saying to him was you've got to offer something to that person. Asking for pictures, you are taking something, it's a transaction. So what do they get in return? You have to give them something, not literally, but you have to give, it's a give-and-take relationship. It's about personality too. It's really all about body language."
When you were working on your Interrogations series, what went through your head when the interrogator pulled out a gun and held it to your subject's head? Was it difficult to remain composed?
From Donald Weber's 'Interrogations,' shot inside Ukraine's police interrogation rooms.
"It was literally maybe two seconds. I had my camera up at that point anyway. Looking through the viewfinder, kind of off to the side, I saw him reach into his holster. It came out, he held it for a second, then he put it back in. Frankly, I wasn't thinking anything. It was one of those moments like, did that really happen? And then when I went back later to see if I got anything... there it was."
What about your work dealing with death and destruction, covering the aftermath of the tsunami in Fukushima or the conflict in South Ossetia. Did any of that affect you negatively?
"It's tough. You're powerless to do anything except stand there and look. I can't offer any help or solution, and I think that's the most difficult aspect of the job. That's part of the reason why I live in the place I live. It's because it's sunny. It's nice, it's a good city, I've got my family around me, etc. You need to have balances. I don't do much of that kind of photography anymore. Part of the reason is because you can get lost. Psychologically, you can go down a dark rabbit hole and never return. I've got lots of friends who have struggled with PTSD and such after doing conflicts and disaster photography, and sometimes I have to ask why. What's the point of doing it? I think that's the most terrifying thing, and that's the futility of photography."
Do you think there's more awareness of that now, or do you think there are still lots of aspiring photojournalists who want to be Robert Capa and get into that stuff not realizing the consequences?
"I've got no problem with people wanting to go do it. But you have to do it for the right reasons, and be motivated and sincere about the thing that you choose to pursue. It's an incredibly romantic profession. I knew when I was a teenager that, to me, the coolest thing was to wear a leather jacket, and... pick up all the chicks in the world by telling them all these great adventures that I've been on and the things that I've seen. But you never know the reality of the things that you've seen until you actually go see [them]. Photography in general is such a difficult, disheartening profession. Just trying to be a newspaper photographer or a wedding photographer or a pet photographer is such an incredibly difficult business that I think the romance quickly recedes."
You've documented a lot of people and communities in far flung, exotic locations -- the Arctic, eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Japan. Do you have any interest in documenting a community closer to home?
"I don't really like to work in the places I'm living. I need to go far out. I need to be challenged culturally. For me, it would be very difficult to make a story in Canada or the U.S. I don't know. But I'm also open to possibility. You never know what's going to happen. In the end, all I'm looking for is a really compelling story to tell."
You're a member of VII, a group of the world's 22 most preeminent photojournalists. What's that process like? What does an agency like that do for you?
"They're kind of [an] agent and manager, so to speak. They help you get work. They help you to make contacts and clients and all kinds of connections and such within the industry... In the case of VII, you have to apply to get in and then have members vote you in. That's traditionally what it would do. But nowadays it's such a different beast and, frankly, VII is struggling to determine our fate, who are we, what do we do, why do we do it, what can an agency do for photographers? So we are in the middle of restructuring and re-shifting our focus."
Not to get all gear-head on you, but can you tell me what's in the bag? What do you carry into the field?
"I carry two seven-year-old Canon 5Ds, the originals. That's my body of choice -- I love them, they're tanks. I have a 24 mm and a 35 mm prime. I have a 24-70 mm that I use occasionally and I have a Fuji X, I don't even know what's called, I barely use it, an X-Pro1. That's about it. Basically what I do is I have two cameras and in the morning I just pick one for the day and I go out with that and I just walk around with one camera. I'm kind of lazy. I don't want to have all this stuff. I've got a couple big flash cards, 8 GB cards -- put those in your pocket, carry an extra battery and you're good for the day."
You travel light. Does that go back to your approach?
"Yeah. Any kind of DSLR is big and black and it's got that lens on there. Even if I had a 300 mm or a 24 mm, you still stick out. A professional camera is a pretty giant thing when you put it in front of your face. That's why I like the 5D. It's smaller, it's not as obtrusive."
Can you tell me about your latest project?
"It's called War Sand. It's using microscopic photography and landscape photography to look at the beaches of the Normandy D-Day invasions. I've been collecting sand samples and working with Kevin Robie, a professor at Queen's University, to use microscopes to photograph the remaining shrapnel that's still found in the sand. To the naked eye it just looks like a grain of sand. What I've been doing is taking hundreds of samples from each of the five beaches, then bringing them back to a university, then using a special microscope to find and sort out all of the World War II materials. They call it micro-archaeology. Most of it is shot, but I still have one or two trips left and then I would like to start working on a book of it."
Do you have a personal motivation or family members who served in the Second World War?
"I read about micro-archaeology in an archaeology magazine. I like archaeology and I thought that was really fascinating and I'm interested in World War II. It's always been something that's intrigued me. I read a story about these British commandos in 1943, frogmen who had to swim onto the beaches to take sand and soil samples and secretly take them back to England to get analyzed to see if they could handle an invasion force. I remembered that story from 20 years ago, so I put two-and-two together and thought well, I guess I'm the tenth commando here, I need to go find some modern sand samples on Normandy."
You've been named as a World Press Photo nominator for next year's Joop Swart Masterclass, which brings together the world's top photojournalists with 12 young, promising shooters. What will you be looking for?
"The idea is to find some up and coming photographers. The thing with Joop Swart is it's for somebody who's already done something in their career and has the potential to go further, so it's kind of like recognition of potential. For me, I want somebody who might not necessarily be the world's greatest photographer but has an innovative way to tell stories or has an interesting eye for what a story is, and might need a little bit of development on their photography. As opposed to a photographer who is an absolutely stunning photographer, but who just does what everybody else does. That to me isn't very interesting."